The British tomato industry should strive to emulate the success achieved by British strawberries in recent years, Waitrose technical manager for agronomy Alan Wilson has told the Tomato Growers Association Conference (24-25 September).
"Twenty-five years ago, the British strawberry industry was on its knees - its market share was around 10 per cent," he said. "Now it's 98 per cent in season, which now runs most of the year, so much so that British Summer Fruits might want to change its name."
British tomatoes, meanwhile remain below 20 per cent market share, Wilson pointed out. "They don't have the same connection with Britishness, either with senior management or the consumer," he claimed.
"People eat far more tomatoes per year than strawberries. But they never say of strawberries, as they do with tomatoes, that they've tasted better abroad. Yet compared with strawberries, you have a great story on nutrition. There is more you can do."
Pointing to the technical innovations that provided the theme of the conference, Wilson said: "Lighting could be British growers' way forward. If you have a 52-weeks-a-year product, it could be very interesting. But it has to be affordable and profitable."
The industry already has many of the virtues that Waitrose looks for, he added. Its managing director Mark Price "is big on sustainability and is very clear on what he wants me to do", which includes prioritising British, sustainably and fairly produced healthy food, he said.
"British tomatoes have the best flavour and growers' production values are in line with our own. We are committed to British tomatoes long-term," he added.
"Supermarkets don't necessarily want to sell cheap, they want to hold up their margins. But we need to be ruthless on quality - it's what's most important for our consumers. Freshness is also key. Can we get them to the depot even quicker?
"Nowadays, less than five per cent of the tomatoes we sell are loose." Currently Waitrose has 12 different tomato categories. "While we have all benefited from the greater diversity on offer, all these varieties can confuse customers," he cautioned.
"A single killer variety only grown in the UK would provide a unique selling point," Wilson suggested. "It's not about being niche or quirky, it's about getting the masses to buy in quantity. Sort that out and we will need more British tomatoes."
But while the "British industry is generally well placed to take up these challenges, he warned: "You will have to shout about it if you want a viable industry in ten years' time."
- See next issue for further coverage of Tomato Growers Association Conference.
GM issue Setback
Asked about Waitrose's long-standing opposition to GM foods, technical manager for agronomy Alan Wilson described current work on developing GM tomatoes at the John Innes Centre as "an enormous setback to tomatoes - the less we talk about it, the better". He also pointed out that "new breeding is bypassing GM anyway".